U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, gives his victory speech at an election party after his primary win over former state senator, Dan Liljenquist, Tuesday, June 26, 2012, at an election party in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican divisions resurfaced in congressional primaries, with five-term Rep. John Sullivan falling to a tea party backed opponent in Oklahoma while Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch easily defeated another candidate backed by the insurgent group. It was Hatch's first primary challenge since his election to the Senate in 1976.
Jim Bridenstine, a Navy pilot and the former director of a Tulsa space museum, defeated Sullivan on Tuesday, making him the fourth incumbent congressman to lose in primaries this year. Bridenstine labeled Sullivan a career politician and criticized his votes to rescue financial firms during the height of the 2008 economic downtown and to increase the debt ceiling last year.
Sullivan seemed to be caught off guard by the closeness of the race. He had won his five previous elections with an increasingly larger percentage of the vote.
Hatch, 78, had been bracing for a tough re-election battle, but he breezed to victory. Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, who survived a 2008 plane crash in Guatemala that killed 11 of 14 on board, won just enough support at the state GOP's nominating convention to advance to the primary.
But Liljenquist faced an overwhelming financial and organizational disadvantage in the primary. Hatch, learning from the defeat two years ago of his Senate colleague Robert Bennett, spent about $10 million blanketing the airwaves and building a campaign operation unlike anything Utah had seen before.
Hatch told the Associated Press in an interview Tuesday night that he was ready to tackle the nation's debt problems and focus on Social Security and Medicare.
"This is my last term," Hatch said. "I'm ready to bite the bullet."
During the Oklahoma campaign, Bridenstine said Sullivan's history of "substance abuse" made him unfit for office, a reference to Sullivan's battle with alcoholism that involved a one-month stay at the Betty Ford Clinic in California in 2009.
In a series of advertisements and at debates, Bridenstine noted that Sullivan had missed 9 percent of House votes since 2003, much higher than the average rate of 2.4 percent. Sullivan said Bridenstine was making a read-between-the-lines attack on his time at the Betty Ford Center and his missing votes after the death of a child.
Bridenstine, 36, enjoyed the support from many in the tea party movement. He said during the campaign that Sullivan's votes weren't appropriate in a state where President Barack Obama failed to win a single county in 2008.
"He's been there for 10 years and there's a lot of people just like him who have made a career out of this, and when you are a career politician, you vote for things like bailouts, debt ceiling increases, government takeovers, stimulus packages and subsidies," Bridenstine said.
In Hatch's quest for a seventh term, he seemed to have an answer to every criticism. For those who said that 36 years in office was enough, he said that he wouldn't be running again if it weren't for the opportunity to serve as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee if the GOP wins control of the Senate.
For those who said he wasn't conservative enough, he gravitated to the right, scoring a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2010 and 2011. His lifetime rating of 89 percent from the ACU would place Hatch among the Senate's most conservative lawmakers.
Liljenquist, 37, a relative newcomer to the Utah political scene, seized on voters' concerns about the growing national debt and tried to make the case that Hatch had been a major contributor to that debt.
A political action committee called FreedomWorks for America spent about $900,000 trying to defeat Hatch. Russ Walker, national political director for the super PAC, said his organization believes it did the right thing by taking on the incumbent. He noted that Hatch's voting record and rhetoric had become more conservative over the past two years.
With the primary victory, Hatch is a huge favorite to win the general election in November against Democratic candidate Scott Howell.